El Salvador and the power of democratic change
Author: Ross Ryan
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 03/23/2009
The recent election in El Salvador is an example of those
relatively rare times when substantial change in the direction and philosophy
of government is achieved through peaceful democratic elections. As such, it
deserves to be recognized as a victory for democracy itself.
As Dr Victor Valle’s
article in this month’s PCM argues, the tragic violence of the Salvadorian
civil war has finally completed its transition from revolutionary struggle,
through fragile peace, and now to a viable democracy. With the FMLN in power,
the grievances between the various sectors of Salvadorian society have a real
chance of being resolved though policy and parliamentary debate. More than
likely, those committed to violence as a method of political persuasion will
find that their supporters have left them, now that they have seen for
themselves that peaceful, democratic change is possible.
A lot of this has to do with other democratic changes in
the Americas: the rising tide of leftist political movements across Latin America, and the election of President Barack Obama in Washington. While the previous US administration openly bullied El Salvador during their last elections –
threatening to cut off foreign aid to the nation if the FMLN became the new
government – the Obama administration acted with laudable restraint.
(Oscar Alvarado’s article in this month’s PCM covers more of
the history of US influence
during El Salvador’s civil war).
I must admit that when President Obama was elected, I was
one of the sceptics. After all, a
democrat won – not even an independent, and certainly not the leader of a
revolutionary party. I am far from over my scepticism now. There has, however, been a welcome change in style from the new administration, as
evidenced (among other things) by the non-interference with El Salvador’s
elections, and the very positive change in the president’s personal tone towards Iran. These changes are
already having an impact on global opinion, and are promoting dialogue and
conflict resolution by democratic means.
A solid continuation of this style would be to follow El
Salvador’s new president Mauricio Funes’ lead and re-establish diplomatic
relations with Cuba. In its long history, the US blockade against that country
has done nothing to promote democracy, and everything to infringe upon personal
freedoms to travel and trade.
Unfortunately, the largest political issue currently facing
the US administration (in my opinion) is not yet even on the agenda for change.
This is – and has been for some time – the military industrial complex. Despite
the media hype, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the tip of an
iceberg, with major US military presence in over 130 nations, and US arms
manufacturers alone accounting for nearly half of the global arms trade.
Not only is this strategy financially unstable, it will
necessarily lead to more war. Defence contracts continue to divert billions of
dollars from US taxpayers into the hands of a few war-profiteering elites, and distribute arms
all over the world. This is a poor way to promote freedom and democracy, and it
Of course, the US is only one of the many nations undergoing
changes at the moment and feeling the pressure to change even more. The
international system, and the UN in particular, is increasingly recognizing the
need for more democratic mechanisms and stronger partnerships with civil society –
although the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Security Council remains
a serious obstacle to meaningful reform.
Perhaps the worst thing we can say about the democratic
process is that it can be painfully slow, as the people of El Salvador have
seen. It is no secret that the entrenched interests of political and economic
elites have a way of influencing elections and other mechanisms of democracy,
so as to preserve power for themselves.
What El Salvador’s election has shown, however, is that even
these interests can be challenged and overcome, when the change is legitimized
by the force of popular support and the peaceful exercise of democratic rights
Bio: Ross Ryan is Editor-in-Chief of the Peace and Conflict Monitor.